How to Take Design Feedback from Non-Designers
There’s no shortage of great articles about how to give and receive design critiques. But what I’ve learned over the years is that most of your design critiques will be with teammates outside of your design team — those surely not versed in design theory and technique.
Instead designers spend most iterations based on feedback from users, technical teammates, and stakeholders. Handling this feedback is much different than that from your designers.
In fact, how you handle this feedback is much more important to your career than how you handle design critiques.
Designers often complain or respond arrogantly, coming across as…well…arrogant assholes (and designers wonder where the stereotypes come from).
Non-designers will have valid business value questions, interactions you never considered, and possibly even – GASP – a better idea! You may crave the respect of your design peers, but it’s your teammates and users who ultimately control your fate.
Here are a few examples of feedback I was ill-prepared to handle as I became a professional designer, and tactics you can use to handle things graciously.
“Needs more pop.”
This is a blanket statement for someone having issues with your visual design, who lacks the aesthetic vocabulary to articulate it.
You could go write a grumpy post on DesignerNews, or craft a snarky tweet essay.
Or, you can take a deep breath and implore what specifically s/he takes issue with. If you get silence, then start poking holes at your own design to elicit some reaction: “Is it the navigation? Do the selection colors look flat?” etc…
You’ll find the issues are minor, or uncover some deeper biases at work (which people often back down from once they acknowledge that they have them).
“Well actually…we already tried that…that’s too technically challenging…that doesn’t work for our situation.”
Eventually, we all get pulled over by the Well Actually Police (WAP).
Sometimes we catch ourselves acting this role.
The WAP exists on all teams, and if you find this person annoying, his teammates who work with him daily probably feel that 10x more. Often the person saying this has deep knowledge of the domain or product you’re working on. They represent the past; the status quo. As a result, their opinions are usually quite valid.
The key is to — you guessed it — implore further.
In this case, however, you’re asking for more specifics about the situation or past they are referring to. Once you get to that, you can start politely challenging him how you could change the approach today.
“I read somewhere that (some part of your design) isn’t trendy any more.”
This one used to really worry me because I truly thought I missed something.
Then I got more experienced and felt irritated by this comment.
Then I got older and simply realized this their way of wanting to join in a solution rather than questioning your design credentials.
Mostly people say this because they want to be heard…to be part of the solution. The response here is tricky because you don’t always want to ask more questions. It will come off defensive and petty.
Instead, I think it’s best to acknowledge the comment and say you’ll take a deeper look. Nine times out of ten, it won’t come up again. They just wanted to feel heard (or sound smart), and nothing more.
“This looks a lot like [app]!”
This one’s easy.
Simply say, “That’s great! That means it will be familiar to users!”
I have honed a pretty good talk track as to why being unique isn’t exactly the goal of a great design. But typically you can handle these comments by simply agreeing that it does look like [fill-in-the-blank] app (unless it truly doesn’t, in which case you acknowledge and move on), and convey that there are other ways to make the product stand out through marketing.
It’s important to remember that when people see your designs, they often see it as the only product of work, so they will expect it to sell itself, market itself, be highly usable, be unique, and be beautiful all at once.
“I like it, but we have to figure out whether it’s feasible.”
Your goal here is to quickly change the conversation to figuring out how you will implement/sell/market your design. They’ve given you an explicit endorsement of your design, so you’ve already won half the battle.
You get the idea. There are dozens more situations you’ll come across, but the tactics remain the same. Let’s quickly cover some tactics that I find pretty common amongst most feedback situations with non-designers.
Empathize with your audience
There are jerks, no doubt. But without exception, professionals enter a design review wanting the best for the product you work on. As difficult as it can be, if you can put all feedback through that lens, you’ll be halfway to becoming an affable designer (I’m about 20% of the way there).
Control your emotions
I get defensive. I always have and it’s something I have to consciously work on in year 12 of being a design professional. Pausing, breathing, taking a sip of water — all this will take your immediate defensive reaction down from a 10 to a 2 in just seconds. This will make every following interaction immensely more helpful and beneficial for yourself and the product.
Never use jargon
There’s a time to use jargon to sound smart — in grad school. I know you want to sound smart, but it rarely comes off the way you imagine to others. But what’s worse is that academic and jargon-heavy responses make it difficult for others to understand your intention. A great communicator has to be understood. And well, great designers are great communicators — you do the math.
Ask for clarifications
Jumping to conclusions is the quickest way to start arguments. Instead, get in the habit for asking for clarifications if it isn’t immediately obvious what someone means. In the examples above, I hear those statements regularly, but they never mean the same thing twice.
Ignore the things that don’t matter
Ultimately, you’ll find that some things simply don’t matter. You’ll leave any major design review with anywhere from 10–50 things to look at. If you defend every one, you’ll not only lose all your hair, but you’ll lose trust in your team. Prioritize the things you care deeply about, and compromise on the rest.
Make them a part of the solution
Lastly, always encourage non-designers to participate in coming up with the solution. I certainly don’t believe that everyone is a designer, but I do believe everyone on a product team can contribute to creative solutions (I’ll explain that distinction in another article…I promise 😉).
In design review sessions, it’s an opportunity for non-designers to participate…so let them!
Combat negativity and criticism by helping them become your ally.
When I’m not getting defensive while presenting my design work, I’m working on Sketch design tools at UX Power Tools to make you a better, more efficient designer.